Kenny Barron seems to have built his career incrementally--through hard work, recording a vast number of albums as a leader and sideman, by extensive touring, unending dedication to the creative potential of jazz piano, years of work as a jazz educator, and through decades of experience with some of jazz' leading legends.
The result is Barron has deservedly attained recognition, especially within the past decade, as one of the most highly regarded jazz pianists of his generation. He is as comfortable backing up Sheila Jordan on "Lost And Found" as he is investigating Thelonious Monk's music as a member of Sphere. In addition, Barron has experimented throughout much of his career with the form of the jazz duo. One of the most challenging of those duos can be heard on his recent CD with Regina Carter, "Freefall."
Kenny Barron took some time between his European and West Coast tours to discuss the new album...and more.
JazzReview.com: I understand that you just returned from touring Europe with Regina Carter.
Kenny Barron: "I just returned from a jazz festival in Munich yesterday. Regina and I did about five concerts in Europe. We started in Paris, went to Turino, then to a little town in Germany, then to the North Sea Jazz Festival, and then to Istanbul. I did a solo concert in a hotel in Munich, the Bayerischer Hof. Joe Zawinul and Freddy Cole were there too."
JazzReview.com: And, you'll be playing in Los Angeles?
Kenny Barron: "Yes, we'll be playing for A Midsummer Night's Jazz at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater in August. From now on, most of our jobs in the States will take place over weekends. After we go to Los Angeles, we will play at the Telluride Jazz Festival, the Mount Hood Jazz Festival and the Monterey Jazz Festival. Then Regina and I will play three nights at a club in Cambridge, Massachusetts: the Regattabar. After that, we'll do a week at the Vanguard."
JazzReview.com: You first met Regina in Telluride.
Kenny Barron: "That's right. I was really knocked out when I heard her for the first time, and I asked if she wanted to play a duo sometime. I got a gig at Sweet Basil, and she worked with me there. From that gig, she got a gig there and then I worked with her. After that, we decided it might be nice for the two of us to do something together. We coordinated our schedules and convinced the record company that it would work."
JazzReview.com: Your CD with Regina, "Freefall," is another in a long line of duos for you.
Kenny Barron: "I've done quite a few, yes. But, 'Freefall' is a little bit different because it involves the violin. But, I've done duos with other pianists, with saxophonists like Stan Getz, and with bass players like Charlie Haden. Duos of piano and bass are fairly traditional, but those with horn players, and especially with violin, are a little unusual. There were a lot of directions available to us when Regina and I played, and that was what was challenging about the recording. For instance, Regina had never played duo with the piano, at least not in a jazz context. So for her, it was a challenge to figure out how to accompany me when I was soloing. And sometimes we didn't solo, but instead we reacted to each other. The project involved some work, but it was all fun."
JazzReview.com: Do you plan to work together again?
Kenny Barron: "As far as recording goes, I'm not sure. But, we hope to perform together as an ongoing situation without making a career out of it. Working together is very enjoyable and she's very easy to work with. Besides being a great musician, Regina is a nice person."
JazzReview.com: Have you been teaching again, now that you retired from Rutgers?
Kenny Barron: "Starting in September, I'll begin teaching at Julliard. I also teach at the Manhattan School Of Music. I don't have many students. I have four or five students at Manhattan and at Julliard. I'm required to teach only two students. I retired from Rutgers two years ago after teaching there for twenty-five years."
JazzReview.com: Has Sphere been performing lately?
Kenny Barron: "We played at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles recently, as well as at the Jazz Alley in Seattle. It's hard to coordinate everyone's schedule now because Gary [Bartz] and Buster [Williams] have their own bands. I'm involved in various projects, as is Ben [Riley]. We do intend to perform as often as we can, though. Sphere has a record in the can, which we produced and recorded ourselves. It's on our own label."
JazzReview.com: I see that your brother's "Modern Windows Suite" was re-released last year. Wasn't that your first recording?
Kenny Barron: "No, my first recording was on The 'Tenor Stylings of Bill Barron,' which Savoy included on the 'Modern Windows Suite' re-issue. In the beginning, he was my primary influence in becoming interested in jazz."
JazzReview.com: Did your family play music too?
Kenny Barron: "Not professionally. I had two brothers and two sisters and everybody studied piano. It was a 'requirement.'"
JazzReview.com: You had said elsewhere that your brother didn't receive enough recognition because he was modest.
Kenny Barron: "I think that he wasn't an aggressive person. He was very quiet and mild-mannered. I think his personality may have played a part in his not receiving his just dues. My first gig in New York was with my brother. He and Ted Curson were playing a Monday night at Birdland. I'll never forget that. Then, whenever he had a gig in town, I worked with him."
JazzReview.com: Who else did you work with when you moved to New York?
Kenny Barron: "I worked with James Moody, Lou Donaldson and Roy Haynes' quartet. When I moved to New York, I was living on the lower East Side--actually next door to my brother. The Five Spot was within walking distance of my apartment. I used to go there to hang out. One night, when Moody was working there, he asked me if I could sit in. That was unusual for me because I don't usually do that. But, he knew Bill and that made it a little bit easier. From there, I started working with Moody. My association with Moody led to my working with Dizzy for four years."
JazzReview.com: And Dizzy was a major influence on you?
Kenny Barron: "Oh, yes, very much so and not just musically. Dizzy also taught me how to conduct myself on the bandstand and how to deal with people. Musically, his knowledge was quite extensive and he was very willing to share it. He knew a lot about piano voicings. Some nights, if we played in a club that wasn't crowded, on the last set he would play piano for a couple of tunes. He was a good piano player, although he didn't have a lot of 'technique' technique. He could solo on the piano and he knew what he was doing. Dizzy also knew a lot about rhythms...so much so that he would tell Rudy Collins, his drummer, exactly what to play with which limb 'Do this with your right foot, play this with your left foot!'"
JazzReview.com: Did you pick up your interest in Latin music from Dizzy?
Kenny Barron: "Probably. I'm sure working with Dizzy had a lot to do with it because we played a lot of Latin music. Also, there was a great radio show hosted by Symphony Sid at that time. It played Latin music almost exclusively."
JazzReview.com: Didn't you listen to jazz radio in Philadelphia?
Kenny Barron: "Yes, actually. The DJ for one of the shows I listened to is now a record producer: Joel Dorn. He was a good DJ. Later, Joel was the producer when I was working with Yusef Lateef."
JazzReview.com: How did you start working with Yusef?
Kenny Barron: "Interestingly enough, Yusef came to work at the Showboat in Philly while I was still in high school. His pianist missed a flight from Detroit for a matinee on Monday at four o'clock. So, Yusef called Jimmy Heath to see if he knew anybody who could substitute. I had been working with Jimmy and so he gave Yusef my name. The first time I only played the matinee, but from that meeting developed a fairly long association. The month that I graduated from high school, I got a call from Yusef to go to Detroit to play at a club called the Minor Key. That was my first road trip, so to speak."
JazzReview.com: Did you meet any other musicians while you were in Detroit?
Kenny Barron: "This was in 1960, and I met the McKinney family. Everyone in the family was musical, including Ray and Bernard [Kiane Zawadi]. I met Dorothy Ashby who is one of the few jazz harpists."
JazzReview.com: Who were some of your influences?
Kenny Barron: "Tommy Flanagan was a very early influence. When I was in junior high school, I heard Tommy on a record called 'Collectors Items' with Sonny Rollins and Miles. When I first heard Tommy, I knew that I liked his style--his touch and his very lyrical ideas. Then, many years later, I heard Hank Jones. In conversations with Tommy, I learned that Hank was one of Tommy's influences. Also, McCoy Tyner had a strong influence on me and I loved hearing Wynton Kelly."
JazzReview.com: And you took lessons from Vera Eubanks [Kevin, Robin Duane and Shane Eubanks' mother and Ray Bryant's sister].
Kenny Barron: "Yes, she was Vera Bryant then. She didn't live very far away from our house. She played classical and gospel piano, although gospel was really her forté. I think she still plays piano. I saw her for the first time in years one night at Bradley's when Kevin was playing there before he moved to L.A. I hadn't seen her for a long time, but she still looked exactly the same as I remembered her. Ray told me that we're actually cousins by marriage. My aunt was married to his uncle."
JazzReview.com: When you joined Stan Getz, he called you out of the blue to replace Chick Corea?
Kenny Barron: "Yes, I don't know how he got my name. I really don't. But, I was very happy about it. We played all of Chick's music the first time I worked with Stan--tunes like 'La Fiesta' and 'Captain Marvel.' The rest of the band consisted of Tony Williams and Stanley Clarke. The first job with Stan was just a short tour to North Carolina and Washington D.C. I didn't hear from him for maybe a year or two. Then, he started to call again to see if I could go to California or play a week or two somewhere. Eventually I started working more with him. The first band at that time had George Mraz and Al Foster in it. Then it was George Mraz and Victor Lewis. Then it was Rufus Reid and Victor Lewis. Sometimes other musicians filled in. One time he had Anthony Cox playing bass or Jeff Williams on drums. Toward the end, Ben Riley and Ray Drummond toured with him."
JazzReview.com: And your mother-in-law got sick during the 'Apasionado' tour.
Kenny Barron: "Yes. I had to leave in the middle of that tour to come home, and then my mother-in-law passed away. When I was ready to rejoin Stan, he said, 'Why don't you bring your wife? I'll pay for it.' That was a very sweet thing for him to do."
JazzReview.com: You said in the liner notes to 'People Time' that he always apologized when he played sober.
Kenny Barron: "He felt uncomfortable when he went sober. I remember that during one recording, he felt like he wanted to take a drink, even though he didn't. I went to Bradley's afterward and saw Stan hanging out there. I think he was on the verge of taking a drink, but he didn't. That project was never released because we recorded only two or three songs. Stan did give up all of his substance abuse. Part of the Alcoholics Anonymous program requires that participants make amends to the people who have been hurt. Stan was actually trying to do that. He apologized to a number of people."
JazzReview.com: Did he ever apologize to you?
Kenny Barron: "No, he never did anything to hurt me. By the time I worked with him, he was fine. The last time I saw him was in Paris, right after we recorded 'People Time' in March. I called him a few weeks after that to see how he was feeling and he was planning a tour for June. But, he died in June."
JazzReview.com: I read in 'Jazz Times' that you've lived in the same house for twenty-eight years, in Brooklyn.
Kenny Barron: "Yes. I haven't done a lot of moving around. We used to have an apartment in Bed-Stuy for a long time and then we moved here. I don't have any plans to move yet. My daughter, Nicole, lives here and so does my granddaughter, Nikara."
JazzReview.com: That brings me back to one point about Dizzy. You had said that he liked to hire married musicians.
Kenny Barron: "That's one of the reasons I got the gig. He never heard me play before I joined him. He hired me on Moody's recommendation. I was married at the time; I was nineteen then. That gig came right in time. I think Dizzy felt that married musicians were more stable and reliable. For the most part, that's probably true. When you have bills to pay, you take care of business."
JazzReview.com: Is it tough to balance marriage with a career as a musician?
Kenny Barron: "I have to travel. Early in my career, I couldn't afford to bring my wife with me. So, that was something that she had to deal with. Well, we both had to deal with it. But, now she gets to travel with me. She's retired as well. She used to work in the New York school system as a teacher, but I didn't travel too much during the time that I taught at Rutgers. Occasionally I did tours, but I was home a lot more often."
JazzReview.com: You've known Ron Carter for a long time.
Kenny Barron: "Yes. We just played together at the North Sea Jazz Festival. I did a day with Regina, and then I did another day with kind of an all-star trio that included Billy Cobham and Ron Carter."
JazzReview.com: How did you meet him?
Kenny Barron: "I don't remember exactly. I think the first time we played together was on a record of my brother's. You wouldn't have heard of it. It was called 'Brazileros,' an album of Brazilian music on a strange high-fidelity label. I don't think my brother's name was even on it. The recording involved my brother, Ron and myself. Charli Persip was the drummer."
JazzReview.com: I understand that you always wanted to play with Sonny Rollins.
Kenny Barron: "Yes, I would love to play with Sonny. He called me a couple of times in the seventies, but I was working with Freddie Hubbard at the time. He called to work with him, but I wasn't available."
JazzReview.com: Is there anyone else you've wanted to record with?
Kenny Barron: "Well, I always wanted to record with Miles, but he isn't here any more."
JazzReview.com: You're one of the most versatile jazz pianists in that you can accompany as well as you can lead. Mulgrew Miller is another pianist with those combined strengths who comes to mind. Is there a key to being able to do both so well?
Kenny Barron: "I don't think there's a key to it. That ability depends on your experience. It's easier to accompany someone if you've done a lot of it. I've had a lot of experience working with singers and I've played in a lot of different situations. So, that makes it kind of easy to make those transitions."
JazzReview.com: Do you still write much music?
Kenny Barron: "Not as much as I would like. I just don't have the time. I did do quite a bit of writing for my 'Spirit Song' album. It has taken me a while to realize that I may actually be able to compose some more. I'm trying to figure out my next project now, as a matter of fact. I'm still undecided about what I will do, but I intend to do some writing for my next recording."
JazzReview.com: Do you prefer being a leader on a project now?
Kenny Barron: "When I'm recording! [Laughs] There are pros and cons with being a bandleader. There is much more to deal with when you're a bandleader, logistics being one of the challenges. Also, you have to deal with personalities. You have to know how to pick the right kind of people--people who are musically fantastic but who, on a personal level, can take care of business. I think I'm at the point now where I feel more comfortable being a bandleader. It's not uncomfortable for me to be a sideman, but I feel more comfortable being a bandleader. If I'm a sideman, I have to deal with someone else's musical vision, which is OK. But, when I lead, I'm recording my musical vision."
JazzReview sincerely thanks Kenny Barron for his time in conducting this interview. You can find more information about Kenny Barron, Regina Carter and the "Freefall" album at http://www.vervemusicgroup.com